At Schifino Lee, Women are Blazing Trails & Leading the Charge

Princess crown or Viking hat?

When Paola Schifino considered those two wardrobe options at a photo shoot for her company’s website, the principal and co-founder of Schifino Lee Advertising & Branding didn’t think twice about which of those iconic headpieces best embodied her go-for-it, voyaging spirit.

It was the Viking hat all the way.

“It was the first thing I reached for,” Schifino recalls, laughing at the memory. “There was a whole table of props for me to pick from, and as soon as I saw that Viking hat, I knew it really represented my fighting spirit. I’m an explorer. I’m fearless. I’m one of those people who believe that if you don’t try, you don’t win at anything. You have to try.”

Schifino, along with her co-founder Ben Lee, has been trying and winning in the Tampa Bay business arena for a long time. Now in its 25th year, the agency, which started in a spare bedroom in Lee’s home, has numerous accounts of varying sizes that span multiple industries. The roster includes such diverse entities as Salem’s Fresh Eats, WRB Enterprises, UBS Financial, Tampa Museum of Art, Vigo Importing/Alessi and the Bank of Tampa.

“Our clients really vary, from quick-serve restaurants to health care, finance and the arts,” Schifino says. “It’s pretty amazing.”

A native of Curacao who speaks multiple languages (“three fluently, and two conversationally—but that’s just how it is when you grow up on a small island”), Schifino moved to the United States to attend the University of Florida, where she got an undergraduate business degree. Then, after a six-month sabbatical, she landed in the MBA program at the University of South Florida.

“I had a focus in international business and MIS [information systems management], which at the time was a lot of fun,” she says. “And I wound up staying here. I’d met my husband at University of Florida, but we hadn’t dated. When I came to USF, he was a young, practicing lawyer, we started dating, and the rest is history. Our three kids were born and raised in Tampa, I’ve been here so long that I almost feel like I’m from here now.”

With deep personal and professional roots in the community, Schifino has seen plenty of change. “We’ve learned a lot about branding over the past 25 years,” she notes. “In the beginning, branding was only reserved for very large, global companies like Johnson & Johnson, or brands like Pampers. And it was actually our mission to take that strategic thinking, throw in all the consumer insights, and apply that to small- to midsize companies. Because, of course, they can benefit from the same type of branding philosophies that ‘the big boys’ are benefiting from.”

Schifino cites Alessi Foods as an example of a client that underwent a crucial branding pivot with her company’s help.

“They’re a wonderful family, the Alessis,” Schifino says. “I call them a ‘monster mom and pop’ because they’re a global company, but it’s run by the family. So we’re really lucky to work with them. When we started, their audience was women 54-plus, usually with some Italian heritage and very traditional in their home life and the foods they prepared.

“But about two years into our relationship with Alessi, research showed that some of their products were appealing to millennials. That meant we had to rebrand and remessage everything to a new audience. The way we spoke about Alessi became ‘make your own new traditions’ as opposed to being stuck to old ones. That’s a great example of an established, successful brand having to re-evaluate and then express that in an integrated campaign.”

While it happened over time, Schifino says it was intentional—and not coincidence—that Schifino now has a deep bench of female executives leading core departments at the agency. “We promoted from within,” she notes. “We had openings in some of the leadership positions, and we realized we had some really talented women who were already working for us, so we promoted them. Some were new hires, as well.”

Her team does have plenty of men, especially on the design and creative sides. “We’re pretty balanced now,” Schifino says. “In the past, we weren’t always, but I think this balance has really changed our corporate culture and created a real sense of equality among the staff. But I do think the female leaders have allowed us to communicate a lot better because they’re nurturing, they’re open. People feel free to come into their offices and ask for help. So it’s been really nice to have this balance that we have today.”

It isn’t just Schifino’s direct reports who make themselves available to junior staffers.

“I always have my door open, so there are a lot of times when young women want to just come in and pick my brain about the industry, and which direction they should go in,” she says. “And I’ll always give them the time, because I love working with young people, and getting them kick-started.”

Schifino sees herself as an enthusiastic ambassador for the advertising and branding business. “I absolutely love this work,” she says. “I love problem-solving. I love working directly with the CEOs and chief marketing officers and directors. I love advancing my customers’ businesses. I love seeing them achieve their goals.” ♦

We asked Schifino Lee’s top female executives about the benefits of a woman-led ad team. Here’s how they responded.

“Females, most of the time, are the decision-makers when it comes to buying products and services in the household. Having a female-led team gives more insight into the minds of our consumers. Also, as women, we are inherently nurturing to our teams—not in a coddling way, but in an inspiring and empowering way.”

Jennifer Ruyle,

director of brand strategy

“Giving women a voice at the table results in better outcomes for our clients. Advertising professionals need to consider how segments of a diverse audience will perceive the same message. By adding diversity to our team in both gender and age, we are able to incorporate different perspectives and produce campaign ideas that resonate with a broader audience.”

Bri Wagner,

social media and public relations manager

“There are many positives to having a female-led ad team, including the importance of diversity and a female perspective. But I feel one of the more important qualities of female leaders is our naturally nurturing spirit. The advertising world can be cutthroat and harsh. Having the ability to lift employees up and let them know they are valued is extremely important in this industry.”

Amanda Koenn,

director of accounts

“A 2018 report by Business.org stated Tampa Bay tops the nation for female entrepreneurship. Who better to understand and work with those woman-owned businesses than another group of women? Women bring inclusiveness and intuition to leadership, and generally guide their actions with a greater sense of empathy. It is important for most any business to be well-rounded and diversified. At Schifino Lee, our team of men and women of varying age groups brings together a range of personalities, perspectives and skill sets, which benefits both our team and our clients.”

Kerry O’Keef,

vice president of finance and administration

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